The Long Road Home

May 19, 2015

My stressed-out PhD walk photo, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

My stressed-out PhD walk photo, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

It’s been eighteen years and nearly a day since I had to shake then Carnegie Mellon Dean Peter Stearns’ hand on stage as part of the PhD portion of the 100th commencement ceremony for graduates, that third sweltering Sunday in May ’97. I’ve talked about the ceremony, my Mom’s jealousy and issues about my degree, Peter Stearns, Joe Trotter, Bruce Anthony Jones, and what happened before and after the degree ceremonies on that fateful day.

But time and enlightenment — especially the latter — has allowed me to take a step back from the events leading to a new wave of disillusionment in my life. If I really think about it, my struggles with where I wanted to go with my career go as far back as ’81, in the months after my first accolades as a writer, to the time when at eleven, I already had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, basic science, and technology. Heck, I already knew some of the historiography around World War II, the Cold War, American slavery and civil rights, long before I ever knew the definition for historiography. Not to mention, I was already living what we now call migration studies, thanks to my Mom and dad.

But my Boy @ The Window years did their damage to me. By the time I turned twenty at the end of the ’80s, I wasn’t fully clear of the array of choices I had for a career or set of careers. I knew I could write, and often write well. Yet I had stopped seeing myself as a writer by the time I went through my summer of abuse in ’82. I knew that I was a historian, because I asked the kinds of questions about history that only trained historians would. Yet I hated the idea that I was supposed to write only one way, using words like synergistic and interstitial (at an esoteric minimum) along the way. I toyed with the idea of going to law school in ’90, even going so far as to take the LSAT, scoring a then-50th percentile 31 on the exam in my one-and-only try.

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), The Long Road--Argilla Road, Ipswich, circa 1898, April 28, 2010. (BrooklynMuseumBot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), The Long Road–Argilla Road, Ipswich, circa 1898, April 28, 2010. (BrooklynMuseumBot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I struggled for years with my fundamental question: “Am I an academic historian who’s also a writer? Am I a writer who’s also a historian? Can I be both?” I realized about a decade ago the question was moot. I am both. The real question really has been, will the working world allow me to operate as both without giving me grief and a hard way to go? (By the way, if I ever were to do a second, post-Boy @ The Window memoir, this would be one of that book’s big themes.)

I can safely say as a mildly successful freelance writer that the answer for many in this world of singularities is no. The working world puts up a fight, has and will continue to try to force me and others with multiple talents to choose one path, to do one thing, and one thing only, ideally for all time.

Academicians only think about each other via teaching duties or well-placed articles and books in scholarly journals and scholarly publishing houses. Higher education administrators believe that the only way to understand their work is through the lens of their specific university, as if universities and colleges aren’t similar from a management standpoint. Nonprofit organizations

A male mallard duck, a bird's triple threat (can walk, swim under water and fly), Saint-Eustache, Quebec, Canada, November 19, 2007. (Acarpentier via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

A male mallard duck, a bird’s triple threat (can walk, swim under water and fly), Saint-Eustache, Quebec, Canada, November 19, 2007. (Acarpentier via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

discount teaching and higher education administrator positions because finding money or managing students isn’t exactly the same as managing staff. Foundations who use your salary history instead of your scope of programs developed, people reached, and money raised as a barometer for even granting you an interview. All would prefer that you be quiet about injustices, especially ones in which their institution, organization, or foundation might well be complicit.

For me in the past couple of decades, though, I’ve worked in and with academicians, higher education administrators, nonprofit organizations, and private foundations. I’ve helped raise $3 million over the years, managed as many as twenty-five staff members, organized four-day conferences with a couple hundred attendees, worked with as many as 500 students at any given time, and taught undergraduate and graduate courses. I’ve written scholarly articles, published in scholarly journals, presented at a couple dozen conferences, and consulted for nonprofit organizations and foundations. To think of myself as only one thing is beyond ridiculous given my by-necessity-and-neglect careers so far.

Yesterday, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted the article “Thriving as a Freelance Academic” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal. In it, Pryal interviewed three White women about their experiences freelancing in the academic world. The women interviewed found a singular niche, found steady work through that niche, and otherwise didn’t question the idea of freelancing in a world in which freelancing is a rare career choice.

A square peg hammered into a round hole, May 2014. (http://joshbrahm.com/).

A square peg hammered into a round hole, May 2014. (http://joshbrahm.com/).

All that is fine. Except there was little soul-searching in Pryal’s piece. The women interviewed might as well have decided to go on a global trek or rock climbing, given their lack of ambivalence about academia or deliberate lack of specifics and dryness about the work they actually do. I don’t doubt that one can freelance in academia. I doubt, though, that one can do it without personal relationships with a specific university or alma mater, or with a specific higher education administrator or prominent professor. Why pick on this piece? Because there are far more people like me in and out of academia, who’ve consulted and freelanced and worked and stitched together a career, then there are the people represented in Pryal’s boutique article.

There is a lesson here besides the reality that life is a journey, and to get it right, we need to understand that it can and will be a roller-coaster-ride of a journey. The lesson, for me at least, is that while being true to myself has sometimes had consequences in terms of immediate victories and easy financial gains, it does mean I get to have success, and sometimes, even lasting success.


Middle School Teachers, Middle School Memories

May 14, 2015

A.B. Davis Middle School, Mount Vernon, NY, November 21, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins). Built in 19226, it used to be Mount Vernon High School before Black migration, the Brown decision and ending some discriminatory ability grouping practices forced the school board to build a new high school after 1954.

A.B. Davis Middle School, Mount Vernon, NY, November 21, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins). Built in 1926, it used to be Mount Vernon High School before Black migration, the Brown decision and ending some discriminatory ability grouping practices forced the school board to build a new high school after 1954.

There’s a reason why much of the recent research on middle schools has called for the elimination of middle schools long-term, that instead, K-5 or K-6 ought to become K-8. It’s a transitional period for kids, one that even with the best of parents, most preteens face mostly unprepared. It’s based on a system that educators and policy makers designed a century ago, when the average student completed their formal education in seventh or eighth grade (only one in five students living in the early twentieth century went on to high school).

The teachers traditionally prepared by schools of education really aren’t prepared specifically for sixth, seventh or eighth grade, but for secondary education. Meaning, teachers either have higher social and emotional expectations of 10-to-14-year-olds than they have prepared for, or they have higher academic expectation of their students than the students have been prepared for, or both. These are among the reasons why middle schools can easily become a black hole for students too young to be dealing with teachers trained really for high school, and a black hole for teachers who simply aren’t as prepared for tweeners and thirteen-year-olds as they like to pretend.

Sligo Middle School, Silver Spring, MD, August 2014. (http://montgomeryschoolsmd.org/).

Sligo Middle School, Silver Spring, MD, August 2014. (http://montgomeryschoolsmd.org/).

Despite the advances in teacher preparation in the past couple of decades, this reality still exists at most middle schools, including my son’s Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring. Common Core, PAARC assessments, a wide variety of fatty lunch options, all make students feel that education matters and yet it really doesn’t. My son has already had a couple of teachers whose first and second instinct for controlling their classrooms has been to yell early and often, to the point where I’m convinced that at least one of his teachers this year had Tourette’s (at least, until we had the school move him out of that class). At least two others could be accused of unconsciously labeling their students, as their expectations of their students have gone unmet.

Through meeting these teachers, I’ve re-recognized something that used to be wrong in my own teaching, back when I first started teaching in Duquesne University’s College of Education in the late-1990s. To have high expectations and standards of conduct isn’t enough. Teachers need to communicate it, through examples, through their lessons, through a rubric, quite frankly, and not just a laundry list of expectation. Simply put, given the age of the students, teachers need to positively and consistently encourage students to meet those expectations, and lay out why these expectations will help them, academically and practically.

I had precisely two teachers at A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon, New York in the early 1980s who did exactly that. My eighth-grade science teacher, Mrs. Mignone, and my first-year, eighth-grade Algebra teacher, Ms. Jeanne Longerano were the best two teachers I had in two years of middle school Humanities-style. Both were committed to the idea that every student in the classroom deserved their undivided attention, which meant that we as students — even us fidgety ones — had to give our maximum preteen attention to what was happening in the classroom as well. Both had high expectations of us, academically and otherwise. I don’t think I got away with much of anything in their classrooms that 1982-83 school year, not even as much as scratching my pubescent balls because the hair was coming in that year.

I learned a life lesson about internalized racism and having high standards for human decency from Mrs. Mignone at the end of eighth grade. Not to mention, the applications of math to science, and science to history, which I carry with me to this day. From Ms. Longerano, I renewed my love for math, began my technical understanding of computer science (we had a computer science club that she started that year), and had a neighbor that I talked to from time to time. Ms. Longerano had given us such a strong foundation in Algebra that it wasn’t until AP Calculus in twelfth grade when I ran into any serious math troubles again.

In all, though, I had twelve different teachers in two years of middle school. I had an art teacher who was also the Humanities coordinator for A.B. Davis in Doris Mann who graded us on the quality of our art, “not just for trying,” to use her words. I had a seventh-grade science teacher whom I’d based some of the nutty stories I told my son over the years, about him eating raw clams in class or coming in after being sprayed by a skunk that same morning. I had a music teacher in Mrs. Mallory for two years who was flat-out goofy to the point of seriously immature, only to find out years later that she had done her same song-and-dance when she taught second-graders. I had a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Mr. Court who was the teacher who probably made his class the most fun, but not necessarily the most educational.

In contrast, Ms. Simmons (seventh-grade math), Ms. Fleming (Italian), and Dr. Demon Travel (eighth-grade social studies), were teachers who cared more about discipline and/or quick-and-dirty rote memorization than anything else. Simmons actually intimidated me, until one day near the end of the school year, I stood next to her. Only to find that I’d grown two inches, to five-foot-four, and that I was now at least an inch taller than her curly mini-fro. Mrs. Sesay, my homeroom and seventh-grade English teacher, was the opposite, a teacher who had little control over her classroom. Almost every incident of taunting and humiliation I experienced in seventh grade had its origins in 7S homeroom or English first period.

Still, I survived, mostly because of a crush in seventh grade, more maturity in eighth, and two really wonderful teachers in that latter year. I don’t want my son, though, to look back at his middle school years and go “Meh.” Unfortunately, he can already do that for sixth grade. Seventh and eighth will have to be better, even if it means I have to home-school him.


The 8th-Grade History Award Race

May 6, 2015

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, last general-secretary of the Communist Party, USSR (1985-90), first and last president of the USSR (1990-91), May 6, 2015. (http://biography.com).

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, last general-secretary of the Communist Party, USSR (1985-90), first and last president of the USSR (1990-91), May 6, 2015. (http://biography.com).

One of the worst teachers I ever had was my eighth grade history teacher at A.B. Davis Middle School between September ’82 and June ’83. His name was Mr. Demontravel, our American history teacher. Or as he preferred in the last three months of eighth grade, Dr. Demontravel (he had finished his doctoral thesis on the Civil War, on what beyond that, I wasn’t sure, and, given the way he was to me and us, I didn’t care either). Or as I liked to call him throughout that year, “Demon Travel.”

Old Scantron machine, January 24, 2012. (http://www.publicsurplus.com/).

Old Scantron machine, January 24, 2012. (http://www.publicsurplus.com/).

His was a class that sucked the life out of history for most of us. Like most teachers of K-12 social studies or history, it was a dates, names, and places class. Unlike most social studies teachers, his teaching methodology was the epitome of lazy. Every class, five days a week, Demontravel would put up five questions on the blackboard for us to copy down and answer using our textbook. At the end of every two-week period, we’d get a fifty-question multiple choice exam, helping Scantron stay in business.

Demontravel rarely stood up to lecture or do anything else. Lectures for him might as well have been appearances by Halley’s Comet, only the lectures were far less memorable. This process went on unabated for forty-weeks, four marking periods, an entire school year. Calling this boring would only get you into the door of the intellectual famine Demontravel subjected us to in eighth grade.

He wasn’t particularly helpful on the rare occasions when someone did have a question. When a classmate did ask him something, the portly Demontravel would stand up from his desk, which was to our right as we faced the chalkboard, slowly walk toward it, point to a question on the board, tell us in his best Teddy Roosevelt voice what page to turn to in looking for the answer, and then, just as slowly, return to his seat at his desk. Demontravel was truly an unremarkable and boring fifty-something man, virtually bald in all of his pink salmon-headedness, skinny and potbellied beyond belief. His shiny bald head had a Gorbachev-like spot on it.

But there was the fact that there was a prize on the line for us nerdy middle-schoolers—the eighth-grade History Award. “Something I could actually win,” I thought. And Demontravel was the sole arbiter over the award. My favorite and easiest subject was in the hands of this hack of a teacher. That made me downright angry whenever I thought about it.

Post Grape-Nuts cereal at its visual best, with milk, raspberries and blueberries, May 6, 2015. (http://plantbasednutritionlifestyle.com/).

Post Grape-Nuts cereal at its visual best, with milk, raspberries and blueberries, May 6, 2015. (http://plantbasednutritionlifestyle.com/).

I ended up not winning the award, mostly because I correctly corrected Demontravel in front of the whole class one day about key battles of World War I on the Eastern Front. And, also because after he threatened to kick me out of his classroom, I drew a naked picture of his Santa Claus-looking body with a scrotum the size of two Grape-Nuts! Though I drew it in Italian class, I’m sure my counselor told Demontravel about it.

So, 96.4 average or not, I lost the award to my classmate Jennifer, who had a 96.3 average. She was part of what I came to call the “Benetton Group.” They were a group of superficially aware, middle-class-to-affluent folks in the Humanities Program who went through the Grimes Center program (which later became Pennington-Grimes Elementary) together, who thought they were down with the cool and the exotic (with people like Wendy and Brandie being prima facie examples of both). Or, at least, Jennifer acted like she was a part of that group.

She was a bit withdrawn in eighth grade. I never fully understood why. All I knew the first half of the year was that she had set a mark that I needed to beat to have any chance at the history award. By the time I drew my post-modernist interpretation of my lazy, boring-ass history teacher, though, I cared far less about the award and a bit more about this person I only talked to after school, on our walks back to our real lives near the Mount Vernon-Pelham border.

As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 12.57.01 PM

I guess Jennifer knew that she would no longer be a part of the grand experiment that was Humanities, the social experience that was integration in a “dangerous” majority of color high school. I bumped into Jennifer a handful of times after eighth grade, between high school and my bachelor’s degree finish at the University of Pittsburgh. Though I have no idea where life has taken her, I must admit, I enjoyed competing with her all eighth grade for an award I knew I’d never get.


Why Boston U Isn’t For Me, and Shouldn’t Be For You

April 26, 2015

The main classroom buildings for the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, with the BU East 'T' stop in the foreground, July 18, 2010. (Fletcher6 via Wikipedia). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

The main classroom buildings for the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, with the BU East ‘T’ stop in the foreground, July 18, 2010. (Fletcher6 via Wikipedia). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Since my first job working for my father in Manhattan in ’84, I’ve probably done over 200 interviews. By telephone, through Skype or WebEx or Adobe Connect, at conferences and in person. Probably about a third of those interviews have occurred with colleges and universities, for academic and administrator-level positions. For the most part, whether the interviews went well or when I didn’t have my “A-game,” my experiences have been pleasant ones. But, after two different interview processes five years apart with Boston University — one in October ’10, the other last month — there is a higher education institution that I will not work for, will not send my son, and will not recommend for anyone I know, under nearly any circumstances.

There are only a few institutions that have been so bad that they’ve moved from my [expletive] list to my permanently-banned-from-my-life list. Even Carnegie Mellon isn’t on the latter list, and I’ve talked about their conservatism and weirdness around diversity before here. But Boston University’s treatment of me as a potential employee, well, it took my breath away without putting me in an NYPD chokehold.

Round 1, Boston University, August-October 2010

Let me rephrase. I was never a “potential employee,” because on the two occasions I interviewed for jobs there, Boston University in the end treated me as a checkmark interviewee. In the fall of ’10, I emerged for them as a candidate for the director of their Washington, DC program. They interviewed me three times: at the American Political Science Association conference in DC in August, at their old DC program headquarters (while also showing me their new one, still under construction) in September, and in person on the main Boston University campus in late October.

For that last interview, they pulled out all the stops. They flew me in, put me up in a nearby hotel the night before, and even took me to lunch. Of course, they also had someone give me a two-hour guided tour of the campus that morning, after one morning meeting, on a day with thirty mile-per-hour winds coming off the Charles River as we walked from one end of the campus to the other. It’s funny. Up until then, I never thought of a campus tour as sinister. But then I realized, if I’m spending two hours during the heart of the workday doing a campus tour with a twenty-four year-old BU grad in forty-five degree weather, what did that mean for my real chances at that job?

My final meeting was with a professor who advised political science and history major in the DC program. That meeting ended at 5 pm on October 22, with which I knew that they were supposed to make a final decision in a week or so. Despite a thank-you email and two follow-up emails, I didn’t hear from Boston University again until November 29. Roberta Turri Vise, the point person for my interview process, didn’t explain why the final decision took more than five weeks. Nor did she explain why after six weeks of correspondence, no response from my requests were returned by her or anyone else in her office.

Round 2, Boston University, January-March 2015

I decided that this was a one-off thing, that with our generation of job searches occurring in a buyer’s market, that some folks really don’t care about being professionals in their dealing with interviewees. Boy was I wrong! Even in a market where people ignore applicant materials and send mass rejection emails without a candidate’s name on it (or worse, with someone else’s name), Boston University claimed a unique crown.

Hierarchy tree of Boston University's leadership team via the Provost's Office, April 26, 2015. (http://www.bu.edu/info/about/admin/).

Hierarchy tree of Boston University’s leadership team via the Provost’s Office, April 26, 2015. (http://www.bu.edu/info/about/admin/).

I interviewed with them again in January and at the beginning of March. This was for a position in their provost’s office, a director position managing undergraduate and graduate fellowship opportunities and advising students via those opportunities. The position was a bit beneath my experience, but they seemed interested, and I already knew from some initial research that it was a new position, so I went ahead and applied for it. My first interview was by telephone, with Suzanne Kennedy, the assistant provost for academic affairs at Boston University. It was a pleasant but underwhelming interview, and I actually didn’t expect a call back. So I kept up with my usual work of teaching, consulting, and looking for more consulting opportunities.

I received an email five weeks later asking me to come up to Boston for a second, in-person interview. I gave it the go-ahead, although the length of time between first interview and correspondence concerned me. So too, did my back and forth with Kennedy’s assistant over travel, as she had initially booked me at times that were very inconvenient for interviewing purposes. Not to mention, the major snow issues that Boston experienced in February.

The interview on March 4 was honestly one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had interviewing for any job. I’m including an interview in which I discovered the place was a sweatshop in Chinatown, during my summer of unemployment in New York in ’88. I had three meetings in all, one over lunch with Kennedy, and two with the two associate provosts at Boston University in academic affairs (one undergraduate, one graduate). Over lunch, the conversation was going well, until I asked the question about the level of diversity with applicant pools for Fulbrights, Trumans, Borens, and Rhodes’ scholarships and fellowships. I kid you not, Kennedy’s eyes literally glazed over as soon as I asked about diversity. Keep in mind, I had asked about socioeconomic diversity — I hadn’t touched racial or gender diversity yet. After lunch, I didn’t see Kennedy again for the rest of the interview process.

My second sign came from my third meeting. I met with Timothy Barbari, associate provost for graduate affairs. It was obvious that Barbari hadn’t even looked at my CV before I walked into his office. The first thing Barbari says to me, with him pushing his body into the back of his chair so far that his attempt to be at ease looked more like a rocket revving to take off — “so, you have a rather interesting CV.” I may not have earned all of my money as an academician, but I’ve been around academic-speak long enough to know that interesting can mean a lot of different things, mostly bad. In this context, interesting meant “not straightforward, not linear in progression, not typical in terms of whom we typically hire.”

I was already feeling a bit like a checkmark or token interviewee by the time I left Barbari’s office for Logan. But after USAirways canceled all their flights to DC that evening due to a snowstorm that wouldn’t drop a snowflake for another twelve hours, it got worse. I notified Kennedy through her assistant that I was stuck in Boston overnight from Logan, and left a message the next morning that the Amtrak to DC was my only option, as more flights had been canceled. No word, not even a “I’m sorry that you have to go through this” response. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that Friday, nearly a day after I returned to DC, and after a third message about them needing to reimburse me, that I heard from Kennedy’s assistant.

At that point, I wouldn’t have taken the job even if they had offered it to me. As it was, I didn’t hear from Kennedy again until April 7, five weeks after a second interview, and despite a check-in to find out what happened with this director position. It’s this kind of calloused approach that leaves folks shaking their head.

Shaking Off The Dirt

I’ve made a few determinations based on these experiences. For one, if this is the way that treat job candidates who look like me, how well do they pay and treat their service staff, the most vulnerable people on their campus? Not well, at least from what I saw and have experienced. For two, the fact that for both interviews, their top concern seemed to be about competing with “schools across the Charles River” — i.e., Harvard, MIT, Tufts — was somewhere between disconcerting and ridiculous.

An elephant shaking off the dirt, circa 2012. JD Rucker via Pinterest.com).

An elephant shaking off the dirt, circa 2012. (JD Rucker via Pinterest.com).

The fact that with tuition, books, and room and board it would run the average BU student $60,000 per year also told me what I needed to know. Boston University is a place that wants elite status and elite students, and in pursuit of this Pollyanna goal, wants to hire people they feel fit the bill. As long as those people look like everyone else running the university — mostly White, with a few people of color lightly sprinkled in leading positions at the institution. Because Boston University has what activist Linda Sarsour (Twitter, @lsarsour) calls cosmetic diversity, a genuine attempt at diversity across socioeconomic, racial and gender lines is unnecessary, at least for the powers whom run the institution.

Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., who earned his doctorate in divinity at Boston University in the early 1950s, I’ve known or known of only one person of color with a degree from BU. She was a neighbor at 616 East Lincoln, a few years younger. Based on her description of more than two decades ago, I’d have to say that Boston University has changed for the worst. Like most universities, they seem more interested in prestige and raising money than in fulfilling their mission.

And with that being the case, why send your kid to Boston University? Especially when, for the same amount of money or less, every other school in the Boston area is either better, or at least, cares more about diversity and learning beyond the cosmetic.


A “Living-In” Experiment With My Future Wife

April 22, 2015

Mexican Jalapeno Hot Pockets, April 22, 2015. (http://couponnetworks.net/).

Mexican Jalapeno Hot Pockets, April 22, 2015. (http://couponnetworks.net/).

I met Angelia, my wife of nearly fifteen years, on this date, Earth Night 1990, twenty-five years ago. I’ve known quite a few people longer, and have muses and crushes that seem to go back to the womb. But there’s no one that I learned more about and know better. To think that our one-time friend Bryan Freehling attempted to put his two tallest Black friends together, only for us to not date for five and a half years, and then get married a decade later? Life is a universe of journeys!

This post, though, isn’t about that first meeting between an at-peace but somewhat cocky college junior and a statuesque, hard-working yet weird woman who would’ve been “too much car” for most people in our circles. It’s about after we began to date, after we decided that this relationship of ours was a bit more than just gettin’ our grind on. It was serious by the time I walked down the steps of Thackeray Hall with my Carnegie Mellon PhD degree in my hands, ready to pummel both Joe Trotter and my Mom with the leather case that held it.

That fall, Angelia decided that it was beyond time for her to complete her degree. For as long as I’d known her, she had been a full-time worker and a part-time to no-time student. Angelia had worked at Campos Market Research (where I worked briefly for two weeks before quitting in May ’90), at Atlantic Books, at Blockbuster, really, at anything that could pay bills and help her and her family out while she lived at home in the no-longer-nice section of Homewood in Pittsburgh.

After taking another job with another market research firm in September ’97, Angelia finally went for it. She sent a letter to the University of Pittsburgh’s ombudsman, Ron Slater, to get reinstated at Pitt to finish her degree, as she still owed $3,000 in tuition and other fees from previous semesters, going back seven years. Slater and Pitt did give her the spring semester of ’98 to take some courses while paying down her bill.

“Some courses!” That’s LOL, considering what Angelia did next. She went ahead and registered for six courses that spring in order to finish her degree. Her courses were Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night, Saturday morning, and an extension learning course (which meant she decided the pace of her work in that class), in communications, political science, and a general writing course she had to retake from nearly a decade earlier. Keep in mind,Angelia was also working a forty-hour-a-week job recruiting staff and clients for a market research firm while running this gauntlet. I thought she was crazy just for registering for so much.

Overloaded and overwhelmed, November 15, 2011. (http://www.alamy.com; http://theguardian.com).

Overloaded and overwhelmed, November 15, 2011. (http://www.alamy.com; http://theguardian.com).

It turned into a four-month-long experiment in sleep deprivation, bottled Starbucks Frappuccinos, and box after box of Hot Pockets “sandwiches” (with “Lean Pockets, too!”). When I’d see her on Saturday evenings and Sundays, and on the occasional after-class weekday evening, Angelia was almost always ready to go to bed. She kept at it, though, reminding herself that this was her last semester at Pitt, that it was do-or-die.

When April ’98 rolled around, I could tell that Angelia was pretty worn out, especially now that she’d finally started doing the work for her extension course. So I offered to help. From Friday, April 10 through April 24, I essentially moved in with Angelia at her East Liberty flat on North Negley. Only “essentially,” because I did occasionally change clothes or check the mail back at my place, and I still had my own job at Carnegie Library in East Liberty to work. But for a bit more than two weeks, I served as Angelia’s advisor, tutor, professor, boyfriend, and taskmaster.

I tried to keep Angelia on a schedule that would give her about five or six hours a sleep every day, even if it meant a two-hour nap after class and only four hours of sleep at night. By finals week, this week seventeen years ago, even that wasn’t working for Angelia anymore.

That week, I became in charge of the food for the two of us for the first time. I didn’t just throw two Hot Pockets in the microwave for Angelia (I never ate the stuff myself — the broccoli and ham and cheese pocket looked disgusting enough). I started cooking sweet and sour chicken, hamburgers and other, more nutritious food for her to eat. I put her on a full schedule, telling her when to go to work, when to work on her communications papers, when to study for her poli sci exam, read over her papers to tell her what she needed to revise. Managing Angelia became a second job.

Starbucks bottled Frappuccinos, three flavors, April 22, 2015. (http://queenbeecoupons.com/).

Starbucks bottled Frappuccinos, three flavors, April 22, 2015. (http://queenbeecoupons.com/).

She had two papers to finish by the next to last day of finals week, a communications paper for her extensions course, and some dumb paper assignment for her General Writing class. The communications paper was nearly twenty pages. It was done, but it needed a conclusion. After I read it, around 3 am, I woke Angelia up. “You can’t end your paper as if you’re driving over a cliff – you need a conclusion,” I said. Angelia started to cry. ” I’m tired!,” she whined, stretching the word tired out like” tttttiiiiirrrrrr’dddd.” So I worked with her, poured another vanilla Frappuccino down her throat, and talked through her conclusion with her.

When she turned in her two papers that Thursday afternoon, April 23, ’98, I was so proud of Angelia. She was about to be done with her bachelor’s degree, a journey that had taken up thirteen years of her life. After two weeks of living together under emergency circumstances, I knew that I wanted more of that for us. Just not with the boring classes, lack of sleep and processed food. Angelia, to her credit, hasn’t had a Hot Pocket (or a Lean Pocket) since that day, having vomited up one a week after finishing her degree.


Merit-hypocrisy in the Air

April 18, 2015

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via http://www.clibsy.com/).

One of the hardest ideals for me to give up on in all of my life has been the idea of meritocracy. Even when I couldn’t spell the word, much less define it or use it in a sentence, I believed in this ideal. It was the driving force behind my educational progression from the middle of fourth grade in January ’79 until I finished my doctorate in May ’97. The meritocratic ideal even guided me in my career, in both academic and in the nonprofit world. Only to realize by the end of ’09 what I suspected, but ignored, for many years. My ideal of a meritocracy is shared by only a precious few, and the rest give lip service to it before wiping it off their mouths, concealing their split lips and forked tongue with nepotism instead.

Being the historian I am — whom people like Jelani Cobb joked about on Twitter as a curse — I am programmed to look back at situations in my own life to look for root causes, to understand what I can do to not repeat my own mistakes, my not-so-well-planned decisions. I’ve thought about my advisor Joe Trotter and my dissertation committee of Trotter, Dan Resnick (husband of education researcher Lauren Resnick) and Bruce Anthony Jones. The biggest mistake I made was in putting this hodgepodge committee of a HNIC advisor, racial determinist and closeted wanderer together to help guide me through my dissertation and then into my first postdoctoral job.

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (http://sciencefiction.com/).

Of course, I didn’t know enough about these men to describe them this way, certainly not until I’d graduated and couldn’t find full-time work for more than two years. The signs, though, were there. Trotter’s unwillingness to recommend me for any job before my completed first draft of my dissertation was really complete (it took me two weeks to revise my dissertation from first to final draft). Resnick calling my dissertation writing “journalistic” and saying that my nearly 2,000 endnotes and thirty pages of sources was “insufficient.” Bruce pulling back on his schedule with me even before taking the job at University of Missouri at Columbia in July ’96.

None of this had anything to with my work. It was about me, whether I as a twenty-six year-old had suffered enough, had gone through enough humiliation, to earn a simple letter of recommendation for a job. When Trotter finally decided it was time to write me a letter of recommendation, it was December ’96, and the job was University of Nebraska-Omaha, “subject to budget considerations,” meaning that it could (and it did) easily fall through. Resnick flat-out refused to share anything he wanted to write about me, with all his “confidentiality” concerns, while I wrote all my letters for myself for Bruce. It was a disaster, and none of it had anything to do with the quality of my work as a historian, educator, or academic writer.

The work I ended up getting after Carnegie Mellon was the result of my dissertation, my teaching experiences, and my networking. The idea that I’d earned my spot, though, was still lacking in the places in which I worked. Particularly at Presidential Classroom, where I was the token highly-educated Negro on staff, and working at Academy for Educational Development with the New Voices Fellowship Program. In both cases, I had bosses whose racial biases only became clear once I began working with them. The then executive director Jay Wickliff never cared about the quality of my work or my degrees. Wickliff’s only concern was that I should keep my mouth shut when he acted or spoke in a racist manner.

My immediate supervisor Ken, on the other hand, wanted all the credit for work I did under him, except in cases when he deemed my methods “not diplomatic enough.” Even before his bipolar disorder led him to a psychological breakdown, Ken regularly accused me of gunning for his position, sometimes turning red whenever he heard about my latest publication, teaching assignment or conference presentation. I had to fight to keep my job and to move on within AED in those final months of ’03 and early ’04, a fight that had zero to do with merit.

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (http://pinterest.com).

I say all this because the one thing that every one of these folks had in common is their lip service to the belief that hard work and results are the keys to success and career advancement. Yet for every one of them, the merit that I had earned didn’t matter. My relative youth, my age, my race, my heterosexual orientation, even my achievements, either scared them or gave them reason to have contempt for me.

I say all of this because in the past eleven years, I have been very careful about the company I keep, about the mentors I seek, about the friends I make, personally and professionally. I went from not trusting anyone as a preteen and teenager to trusting a few too many folks in my twenties and early thirties. All because I believed that my hard working nature and talent mattered more than anything else. What has always mattered more is who you know, especially in high places like academia and with large nonprofits and foundations. So, please, please, please be careful about the supposedly great people you meet. Many of them aren’t so great at all.

That’s why the idea that academia is a place full of progressive leftists is ridiculous. Yes, people like Dick Oestreicher, Wendy Goldman, Joe Trotter and so many others wrote and talked about progressive movements and ideals while I was their student. But fundamentally, they could’ve cared less about the actual human beings they worked with and advised, particularly my Black ass. Their ideals stopped the moment they ended their talk at a conference or wrote the last sentence of a particular book. They only cared about people that they could shape and mold into their own image. And that’s not meritocracy. That’s the ultimate form of nepotism.


Before and After Spencer

April 14, 2015

Seattle Seahawks' Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (http://reddit.com).

Seattle Seahawks’ Jerome Kearse making great catch off tipped ball while on the ground on final drive of Super Bowl XLIV, Tucson, AZ, February 2, 2015. (http://reddit.com).

This week marks twenty years since the now-retired Catherine Lacey called me up on a Friday morning while I was brushing my teeth to tell me that I’d been selected to be a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow for the 1995-96 year.  I’d hoped and prayed for that day for more than twenty months, after my fellowship and teaching plans for the summer of ’93 fell through. But I’ve talked about Catherine Lacey and some of my Spencer experiences already, as well as about the reaction of Joe Trotter and some of my Carnegie Mellon grad school mates to this news.

This post is about the days before I received Lacey’s call, before I knew that I would be on the fast track to a doctorate. Because before I’d been selected for the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, the selection committee had rejected me, with a 6-1-1 vote (that’s six in favor, one not in favor, and one abstaining). I knew this because Catherine had sent me a rejection letter with a handwritten note at the bottom of it, one that I received after two months away in DC doing my dissertation research. My suspicion was that most of the Fellows had received an 8-0 or 7-1 selection vote.

That was all on March 31, ’95. Catherine’s note, though, was encouraging. She said to “stay tuned,” that she was “looking into other alternatives.” So there was still a chance that I’d get the fellowship. Still, I didn’t want to do what I did two years earlier, when assumptions and hope led me to six weeks of joblessness and an eviction notice.

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago - The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (http://milenorthhotel.com).

John Hancock Center, Downtown Chiicago – The Spencer Foundation is on the 39th Floor, April 14, 2015. (http://milenorthhotel.com).

So I did what I’ve done best throughout my work experiences. I scrambled to make sure I had work during the summer and upcoming school year. I didn’t want to be stuck borrowing more in student loans or teaching more of Peter Stearns’ version of World History courses — really, World Stereotypes — for entitled CMU freshmen.

I talked with both then associate provost (and also an eventual) mentor) Barbara Lazarus and fellow but further along grad student in John Hinshaw about me taking his job as a part-time assistant to Barbara. John really wanted to finish his dissertation and move on (who could blame him, given that Trotter was his advisor as well), and Barbara would’ve liked me for the job. So I gave them both a tentative yes, knowing that the job was contingent on John’s timetable for leaving it and finding an academic job elsewhere, all while completing his dissertation.

The thought occurred to me, though, that I may need more than a 15-20-hour-per-week job to get through the dissertation stage. Especially if I was to avoid teaching for the mercurial Stearns again. So I scheduled a meeting with Trotter to see if he any research project he needed help with.

We met at 2 pm on Thursday, April 13. Trotter was as excited about us meeting as he had been when I first decided to transfer to Carnegie Mellon to work with him as my advisor two and a half years earlier. He had at least three migration studies projects with which he wanted my labor. All the projects were about extending his grand proletarianization thesis. All would be dreadfully boring drudgery compared to my dissertation, but would keep me in additional pay checks for a year or two. I faked a smile, and tentatively said yes to Trotter as well.

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (http://fortheloveofgif.tumblr.com).

Dikembe Mutumbo putting the wood to the. LA Laker Andrew Bynum, April 14, 2015. (http://fortheloveofgif.tumblr.com).

Eighteen hours later came Catherine’s call about me being offered the Spencer Fellowship! I took it as a sign from God, that at the very least, I’d finish my dissertation and my doctorate without the need for working on it an extra two or three years. Unfortunately, neither John Hinshaw nor Joe Trotter saw my great fortune the way I did. When John found out, which was a week later, he didn’t talk to me for nearly three years. And from reading my previous blog posts, you all already know how my work with Trotter devolved after the Spencer award announcement.

The one thing that fellowship did for me as a person — and not just as an academician, researcher or education — was to give me the space to question academia and my role in it. Even two decades later, I’m still ambivalent about the academic method of obtaining tenure, of the publish-or-perish paradigm, of the hypocrisy that exists in such a cloistered world. Even as I still hold a job and play a role in this world.

What I’ve come to learn is that hypocrisy is everywhere, in the nonprofit world, in romance, and in academia, too. We could all start with, “Did you hear the one joke about how merit and hard work alone can lead to a prosperous life?” That’s the hypocrisy that I had to learn to see in academia, and began to, thanks to the space that the Spencer Dissertation Fellowship gave me that year. More on that later.


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